Saturday, February 25, 2012

Trek to the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal: Preparations

Trek to the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal

Introduction. What's where and where's what.
Teahouse Trekking. What makes trekking in Nepal a cheap and easy activity to organize.
Preparations. Organizing the trek: permits, transpo, guides and/or porters, etc.
Things to Bring. Gear, clothes, meds, water, etc.
The Trek: Part 1, Part 2. Tackles the trek, all the highs and lows, literally and figuratively.
Budget. Trekking doesn't have to costs that much.
The Take Away. Lessons learned and what not.
Now that you have been given an introduction to the Himalayas and Nepal as well as to the wonderful concept known as Teahouse Trekking, it's time then that you begin organizing your trek. And by that, I mean organizing your independent trek. Do it your own. No trekking or outdoor agencies involved (essentially, of course). Otherwise, this will be a very short post. The details here will be specific to the Annapurna Himalayas (the trek that we did) and maybe a bit on the Everest Region as well.

This post will deal with five topics in relation to preparing and organizing your trek: securing your permits, booking your transportation, hiring guides and porters, health and conditioning, and a note on responsible trekking. Let's begin.

Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal
Thamel, where all your travel and trekking needs are met

Securing Permits

It is no secret to everyone in Nepal, including the government, that their country is popular with trekkers from around the world. That is why they require every trekker to submit their information to a registry. That way, they know pertinent details of every single trekker exploring a specific region and trail at any given point in time. That way, in case of an emergency (accident or natural calamity, any of which is not unlikely to happen in the great outdoors), the government has the trekker's information (contact details, insurance policy, etc.). The registry I am referring to here is the Trekkers Information Management System (TIMS). This is the first permit you need to have before you can go trekking.

The second will be a permit specific to your trekking area. I am not sure if all trekking areas in Nepal require this second permit. I do know, however, that the Everest Region (also known as the Khumbu Region or Sagarmatha National Park) and the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) have them.

So how do you obtain these permits independently? Easy. Assuming you are now in Kathmandu, you need to:
  1. Prepare at least three passport-size photos. Do not forget to bring with you your passport and insurance policy when you apply for the permits. They will need a photocopy of your passport and details of your travel insurance.

  2. Head to the Nepal Tourism Board office at Exhibition Road (easy 30-minute walk or 15-minute taxi ride from the backpacker district of Thamel in Kathmandu). Enter via the main doors and to your left will be a staircase under which is the booth for the TIMS permit.

  3. Nepal Tourism Board, Kathmandu
    Really easy to get to from Thamel

  4. Pay the corresponding fee for the TIMS card at 1615 NPR to the officer at the booth and he/she will hand you a form and the blank TIMS card, both of which you need to fill out. She will also photocopy your passport at this point.

  5. Fill out the form and the card. Submit them once done. The officer will keep the form and certify your TIMS card before handing it over to you.

  6. TIMS Permit, Nepal
    TIMS card. Looks like a passport.

  7. Now head to the walkway right beside the TIMS booth. At the end of that walkway, you will see the permit offices for specific trekking regions. Head to the booth for your trail and ask for a form. Fill it out.

  8. Submit the form and pay the corresponding fee. We paid 2000 NPR for the ACAP permit. (We wanted to use the payment we gave a few days earlier for the Sagarmatha National Park permit, also at 2000 NPR, a permit we ultimately did not use because our flights to the Everest region were cancelled twice. Unfortunately, they don't do refunds. Bummer.)

  9. Wait for your forms to be processed and once they call your name, get your form and you're done.
Annapurna Trekking Permit, Nepal

These two permits, in our case, the TIMS card and ACAP permit, served as our "passports" for when we went trekking. Seriously, there will be official points in the trail where they will need to stamp you in and stamp you out. So better not lose these documents while in the trek.

If you entered Nepal through India and went straight to Pokhara to do trekking in the Annapurna Himalayas, you need not go back to Kathmandu to get the permits. There are offices in Pokhara where you can obtain these permits. I am not sure exactly where, but do ask around. It won’t be hard to find.

Booking Transportation

Again, assuming you are in Kathmandu, you will need to some form of transportation to get to your trek's jump-off point. To do the 14-day Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek, you will need to book a round-trip flight to Lukla, the first village in the EBC trek. There are several travel agencies in Thamel that can easily book these flights for you. Literally, one travel agency after another in that backpacker district!

The round-trip flights are quite expensive at around 250 USD (I know!). Also, during the peak trekking seasons (spring and autumn), you may want to book ahead. We went with the very reliable travel agency at the famed Kathmandu Guest House. When our flights were ultimately cancelled, they gave us our refund promptly.

Flights delayed and eventually cancelled, Kathmandu Airport, Nepal
Delayed and eventually cancelled

To do trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area, you can either fly from Kathmandu to Pokhara (the first major city close to the Annapurna Himalayas) or you can take a 7-hour bus ride. Still reeling from the emotional damage that unpredictable weather and cancelled flights caused us, we just took the bus. Again, any travel agency in Thamel can book these flights/bus rides for you. I do not know the price for round-trip flights Kathmandu-Pokhara. We never bothered asking. However, for a round-trip bus ride Kathmandu to Pokhara, you will need to cough up 1000 NPR. You can keep the return date open for when you want to extend your trek or stay a few more days in lovely, laid-back, lakeside Pokhara.

Buses for Pokhara leave early in the morning from Kanti Path Street, about five minutes outside of Thamel. All the buses for Pokhara will be lined up on the side of that street. The travel agency that booked your bus ride will tell you which bus you will board. If still unsure, just show any of the drivers or any of the bus crew your receipt from the travel agency, they will direct you to your proper bus.

Hiring Guides and Porters

Thanks to the concept that is Teahouse Trekking, it is now unnecessary to hire a guide for when you want to trek in the more popular trekking regions of the Nepal Himalayas, such as Everest or the Annapurnas. However, if you feel hiring a guide would be beneficial, even necessary, on your part, then go right ahead. You are boosting local economy by doing so. You can approach any travel agency in Kathmandu or Pokhara to put you up with a licensed guide. Yes, to be a trekking guide in Nepal, you need to be licensed by the government. Trekking is a specialized activity and you will need trained individuals to be by your side.

Guides can be hired for 20 to 30 USD per day, depending on their experience and expertise. You will need to clarify with your travel agency or with the guide himself/herself other costs such as the guide's transportation costs, food costs, accommodation costs, etc.

Again, due to Teahouse Trekking, it is now unnecessary to bring with you all your provisions when doing a trek in the mountains. Food, a place to sleep at night, water, etc. They will all be taken care of by teahouses along your route. If you still need a porter to carry your personal things, then by all means, hire one through a travel agency. A porter's wage goes for 10 to 20 USD per day. Again, clarify with the travel agency other cost details.

Porters, Annapurna, Nepal
Porters and the backbreaking work that they do. Respect.

Health and Conditioning

Still in the subject of preparation, this is perhaps one of the questions I get when people ask me about trekking in the Nepal Himalayas. What kind of physical training do you need to have before you can go trekking in the Himalayas? My response is, you do not have to be the fittest person in the world to go trekking in the mountains. Heck, I'm overweight, mildly obese even, and I still did it! And heck, I went trekking with some of the world's heaviest smokers and they all survived. (No offense. I love you, guys.)

I am not condoning a sedentary lifestyle full of unhealthy habits such as smoking or drinking. What I am saying is, if you really want this, then nothing should stop you from getting it. It could even inspire you to lead a healthier lifestyle. It did in my case. It motivated me enough to cut back on and finally quit smoking several months before the trek. It also urged me to do some cardio exercises (running and jogging, mostly) in preparation for the strenuous physical activity I was about to undergo.

Bye, cigarettes!
Bye, bye (for now?)

These measures helped me, yes. But they certainly did not take me all the way up there. At the end of the day, it still falls on determination. The trek is a physical exercise as much as it is mental and emotional. You will realize that every difficult step you make on the trail. Believe me. Even if you are fit as fit can be, if your heart and head are not all the way in this activity, then might as well turn back. You will literally be giving all that you got. You need to be fully and absolutely committed.

Of course, the trek that I did only had, in expert opinion, a difficulty level of Medium. If I did a more difficult trek, then who knows if I would have survived at all? Again, it all depends on the trekker. If you are determined to do those Medium-Hard or flat-out Hard treks, then don't expect to make it being the couch potato you are back home, without any form of physical conditioning or training. Know your limits as well as when to push them.

Responsible Trekking

Finally, a personal note on responsible trekking. The Nepal Himalayas is absolutely the most beautiful outdoors I have ever set foot on. Of course, I am just one of the millions of people from around the world who want to behold this beauty for themselves. Forget the Nepali government. Forget NGOs. I am sure they are doing their part. As trekkers, we also have our own responsibilities in the preservation of this great wilderness. And if there are millions of us that visit Nepal every year, then we can certainly make a great contribution to all conservation efforts now in place.

I am not asking that every trekker do volunteer work of some sort. (Though that would be awesome, if you did.) The most minimal of contribution would be of great help to that country. Any activity you do in the outdoors, not just in the Nepal Himalayas, the LNT rule applies: Leave No Trace.

What you bring in, you bring out. All plastic wrappers, trash and other non-biodegradable sh*t, you take with you or throw them in the proper waste bins in the villages you pass through. With water bottles, as a traveler friend from the UK says, you can carry them when they're full, you can certainly carry them when they're empty. Better yet, bring your own sturdy refillable water bottle. There are other measures, of course. You can certainly share your own tips by leaving a comment below.

And with that, I leave you with the hackneyed but ever-so reliable philosophy for the great outdoors.

Take nothing but pictures.
Leave nothing but footprints.
Kill nothing but time.

This post is the third of the series Trek in the Annapurna Himalaya in Nepal. The previous post dealt with Teahouse Trekking. Watch out for my next post: Things to Bring.

Let me ask this question again. Did you take anything in this post? Do you have a question about trekking in the Himalayas? Something that won't be tackled by any of the seven posts I'm doing? Ask away. Leave me a comment below.

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